Editor's Note: Below is an excerpt from a recent Demography Unplugged research note written by world-renowned demographer and Hedgeye analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more about Demography Unplugged.
America’s abortion rate has fallen to its lowest level ever since abortion became legal in 1973. The study’s authors cited greater use of contraceptives and fewer pregnancies as the main drivers for the decline; there’s little evidence that the proliferation of state laws restricting abortion played a role.
Neil Howe: For the last 45 years--ever since Roe v Wade--America's high abortion rate has been a culture-war battle cry. Conservatives lament the decline in moral values that allows parents (mainly women) to regard unborn infants as disposable. Progressives condemn a repressive patriarchy (mostly men) whose opposition to sex education, family planning, and equal rights has driven women to seek abortion as a last resort.
One quick look at the data ought to persuade both sides that they need to give their arguments a fundamental makeover.
According to conservatives, America has been inundated with a rising tide of abortions ever since Roe v Wade. But the U.S. abortion rate (per 1,000 women age 18-45) has been declining for the last 38 years (since 1981). And it has been below the rate at the time of Roe v Wade for the last five years (2013). That, in fact, is the biggest news out of this new Guttmacher report: The U.S. abortion rate in 2017 (at 13.5) is 18% lower than it was in the year of the Roe-v-Wade decision (16.3). In other words, fewer abortions are happening today per capita than when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state and federal abortion prohibitions by declaring that women possess a limited constitutional right to an abortion. (See the first chart below.)
Relative to other nations, to be sure, the U.S. abortion rate was once relatively high. Ten or twenty years ago, it was lower than only a handful of other large countries that had halfway reliable data--like Russia or China or Sweden. It was higher than in most of the rest of the developed world. But today even this is no longer true. At 13.5, the U.S. abortion rate is about on par with that of New Zealand, Australia, France, the UK, and the rest of northern and western Europe.
Progressives, on the other hand, cite the declining abortion rate as a sign of growing patriarchal repression: Thanks to the cultural right's pronatalist agenda, some claim, women are being forced to bear children they don't want. (It's a plotline taken right out of The Handmaid's Tale, the dystopian novel by Barbara Atwood which has sold an astounding 8 million copies and is now a popular Hulu TV drama.)
Yet this story, too, has problems. If it were true, it would necessarily imply regional differences in the abortion-rate decline. Presumably, the decline would be weaker or would not occur at all in blue-zone states whose policies and social attitudes toward abortion are very tolerant (like Massachusetts, Vermont, or Oregon). And it would be steeper in red-zone states with less tolerant policies and attitudes and where ever-fewer providers perform abortions (like Idaho, Alabama, or Mississippi).
Though the Guttmacher researchers looked carefully for such regional differences, they could not find any. The abortion rate has been declining at roughly the same rate in every region. And states supportive of abortion rights, mainly in the northeast and west, have seen declines equal to the declines in the states that have recently restricted access to abortion. (See the second and third charts below.)
One reason restrictive policies don't have much impact, the researchers hypothesize, is that the (increasingly) older women seeking abortion find it easy to cross state lines to find a provider. Another reason is the rapid recent growth in "medication abortions," which now constitute 39% of all abortions. Women can now safely induce early abortions in a self-care or tele-doc setting, and the drugs themselves are available by mail order. (See the fourth chart below.)
What's more, if the pronatalism theory were correct, we should be seeing rising birth rates--in some states at least--as the abortion rate is forced down. But we aren't seeing that. Yes, red states have long had higher fertility rates than blue states. But over the last decade, the TFR has been declining nation-side nearly every year--and it has been declining at roughly equal rates by region and by state.
The bottom line is that both abortion rates and birth rates are declining because pregnancy rates are declining. It's that simple. To quote from another Guttmacher report: "Because both abortions and births declined, it is clear that there were fewer pregnancies overall in the United States in 2017 than in 2011. The big question is why."
Actually, we pretty much know why. Rates of sexual activity are declining, especially among the young. Contraceptive methods are improving and are being implemented more conscientiously. And young adults are less likely to be married. Spearheading all three of these trends--less sex, growing risk aversion, and delayed marriage--are today's younger cohorts, Millennials, and Homelanders.
And that is why the youngest age brackets (teens and early 20s) have experienced the steepest declines in abortion rates, just as they have also experienced the steepest declines in birth rates.